This is a heated rivalry in which both Michigan schools have participated since 1898. They play for the Paul Bunyan trophy and for bragging rights. In recent years, large spreads favoring Michigan notwithstanding, the Spartans have held the upper hand.
For reasons that I will explain, the spread of this year’s rendition of the rivalry creates a misleading picture of Michigan State’s competitive outlook.
Michigan State Spartans vs. Michigan Wolverines
Saturday, October 29, 2022 – 07:30 PM EDT at Michigan Stadium
Michigan State has succeeded in the most recent renditions of this rivalry. Last year, as a 4-point underdog, the Spartans won 37-33 at home.
Two years ago, Michigan State was a 21.5-point road underdog and won 27-24. So, it is not just the better Spartans team that upset Michigan.
Before 2020, Michigan enjoyed consecutive dominating performances in which the Spartans failed to exceed 10 points.
What is the difference, then, between 2021 and 2020 on the one hand and 2018 and 2019 on the other?
In 2018 and 2019, Michigan State's offense was held back by the play of Brian Lewerke, whose shoulder was hurt in 2018 and who remained inefficient and turnover-prone as a passer in 2019.
As evident in current Northern Illinois, quarterback Rocky Lombardi's triumph in 2020 and, really, in Michigan State's run-centered attack last year, good quarterback play is not a necessary component of a win over Michigan.
Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed
However, Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed are in top form right now after having been dinged up earlier in the year.
Both players looked their best in their last game, a win over Wisconsin, while the Badgers had been underachieving under their previous head coach, they have righted the ship under new leadership, as evident in the magnitude of their victory over Northwestern and their dominating win last week over Purdue.
In that Wisconsin game, Thorne achieved a 178.1 passer rating, his previous best was a 178.2 passer rating against Western Michigan. Reed accomplished season highs in yards and receptions.
While Thorne threw 0 touchdowns in last year's win over Michigan, he didn't need to display the individual quality that he did, for example, against Wisconsin, although a committee of efficient running backs supports him.
He also missed 6'4 target Keon Coleman, whose size makes him a favorite in the end zone. This year, he leads Spartan receivers with 5 touchdowns while Reed and Tre Mosley each have three.
Michigan's Pass Defense
While the Wolverine pass defense is highly ranked, it has benefitted from facing soft tests every week.
After solidly beating but failing to come close to covering the spread against Maryland, the Wolverines got to face Iowa's atrocious offense, an Indiana team that missed D.J. Matthews and that also struggled to pass against defenses like Nebraska's and Penn State for the Nittany Lions' annual blowout loss in a filled-up Big House.
For the Spartans, Reed will improve upon last year's performance. He caught 6 passes for 80 yards against similar personnel (thanks to an improved Thorne), while Coleman, though obviously not as fast as Jalen Nailor was, will be more productive with his more complete physical package that blends size with mobility and that positions him with a height advantage.
Jacob Slade Is Back
Last year, too, Michigan enjoyed a highly-ranked rushing offense, but the Wolverine offense still had to inflict most of its damage through the air. While Michigan State's run defense regressed statistically this year, it has missed difference-maker Jacob Slade.
Slade only played in 2 games this year, which explains Michigan State's defensive regression because he is the 2nd-best graded Big Ten interior defensive lineman since 2019 and he is known, in particular, for his run-stuffing ability.
He was visibly not himself against Wisconsin, although his presence still helped ensure that the Badgers mustered vastly fewer YPC than they normally do.
After having been able to play against Wisconsin and then enjoying a bye week, Slade will be his usual self against Michigan. With his services, Michigan State will keep Michigan's already familiar ground game.
Although, the Wolverines this year are more reliant on a single running back and their starting right tackle suffered an ugly injury against Indiana, in check.
Wolverines Pass Attack vs. Spartans Pass Defense
One advantage that the Spartan pass defense has over last year's version is an improved pass rush. Nationally, relative to last year, the Spartans rank 21 spots higher in sack rate.
The Spartans benefit from the offseason hire of pass-rush specialist Brandon Jones who ably utilizes players from every level of the defense to get sacks. This pass-rushing ability is critical because, statistically, Wolverine quarterback J.J. McCarthy is awful under pressure. They will send guys from the edges to help keep McCarthy from moving outside the pocket where he becomes a dangerous playmaker.
One threat, in particular, will be Jacoby Windmon, who has 5.5 sacks on the season and, perhaps even more critically, 6 forced fumbles, displaying a crucial inclination to force turnovers. While typically remaining upright, McCarthy has delivered low-yardage efforts against better pass defenses.
In terms of whether the Spartans count as one of the better pass defenses, they just gave Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz one of his worst performances of the season. While stymying Mertz may not impress many, safety Xavier Henderson's ability to return and shake off his rust was profoundly important.
Henderson's leadership (he quarterbacks the Spartan defense) will help his team limit a Wolverine wide receiver crew that misses the embodied ability that it fielded with multiple current NFL receivers in its successful games against Michigan State.
With your NCAAF picks, expect Michigan State to deploy sufficient resources on both sides of the ball to have Michigan on upset alert.
For the above reasons, expect another Michigan State cover in this rivalry.
*The line and/or odds on picks in this article might have moved since the content was commissioned. For updated line movements, visit BMR’s free betting odds product.